The mother tightened her grip on the little girl's hand, pulling her out of the sputtering rain and away from the three green trash bins outside the Perkins Homes public housing complex.
This is no place for a child, precisely because this is where the body of a child was found this week.
A man taking out the trash made the discovery on a courtyard across from an elementary school and sandwiched between the backs of worn, long brick buildings that abut Pratt Street east of downtown.
The girl was Annie McCann, a 16-year-old high school junior from Alexandria, Va.
She was an honors student who didn't show up at school Friday and was reported missing that evening when her parents found a note saying she had run away from home. She was dressed in blue jeans and a red pleated jacket, carrying a blue book bag and a box of Cheerios.
More than 30 hours later, the thin girl with auburn hair and a perpetual smile was found dead at Perkins Homes, her white Volvo S60 parked five blocks away. She had a scrape on her forehead, a police spokesman said, but nothing that outwardly suggested a cause of death, which is listed by police as suspicious and by the medical examiner as undetermined.
The woman with the child shook her head. "How did she get here?"
It is a question Annie's father, Dan McCann, is asking as well. "We are absolutely bewildered why she went to Baltimore," he told me in a brief interview this week. She had been to the city before, he said, to attend Orioles games at Camden Yards.
But, her father noted, "The Oriole season is over now."
Did she have any friends in Baltimore?
"None," McCann answered.
McCann sent out e-mail while Annie was still missing, writing that his daughter's note said only that she had run away and that her parents shouldn't worry, "to please let her be free." Annie said she was going to buy a ticket to "somewhere far away." Her father checked airports and Amtrak. He hired a private detective.
We don't know what, if anything, went on at home. Baltimore police aren't saying whether detectives have traced Annie's path from Alexandria to Baltimore, whether she met anyone or came alone, whether there were any clues in her car, whether her cell phone has been found or her calls traced. Speculation about how she died has spurred rumors on the Internet - rumors that her friends at West Potomac High are fighting to quash.
"I can say that in school she wasn't seen with the wrong crowd, she always, always, always had a smile on her face, and if there was trouble or turmoil in her life, she hid it very well," classmate Jordan Elizabeth told me in an e-mail. "It's so tragic - if there was trouble, she didn't speak of it before running away."
Perkins Homes, located between the touristy Inner Harbor and Fells Point, is a sad reminder that all is still not right with this city. A man was killed there in May, another was stabbed last year, and a teenager was shot and killed in 2004, prompting then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to ask students at a city high school, "Why the violence?"
Four prostitutes were killed in these small complexes between 1992 and 1995; a sixth-grader chasing an errant football during gym class found the body of one, covered with trash and debris, in a recessed stairwell of a school.
Police have made an arrest in one of the prostitutes' killings; the others remain unsolved.
Now, another body at Perkins Homes. Another family left to grieve. Another funeral to plan. Another mystery to solve.